Two years ago, I had the unique opportunity to spend a week in a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Rio’s favelas, or slums, are often troubled places with an array of problems, some of which I saw first hand and others of which I’ve read about.
However, in recent years some of these areas — including Tavares Bastos, where I stayed — have seen dramatic improvements in safety and along the way have become remarkable, exciting places. In fact, the favela I visited was probably the most vibrant place I’ve ever been in my entire life.
In many ways, Tavares Bastos is remarkably similar to a medieval European village. The streets are impossibly narrow and twisted, population density is high, and structures conform to no planning or architectural principles whatsoever. Navigating the area was a viscerally pleasurable experience.
That experience was the result of chaos. As this piece from The Nation points out, residents of favelas often build their own homes slowly over years, adapting and creating spaces as needed.
By “first world” standards, that creates problems. None of the buildings are earthquake safe, for example, or have residential sprinklers to prevent fires. When disaster strikes, it can be really bad.
But favelas also avoid a plethora of first world problems like sprawl, urban heat islands, traffic congestion, auto-pedestrian accidents, and the general inefficiency of living in groups of detached homes (like the one I’m sitting in as I write this). In other words, for all of its flaws Tavares Bastos has American cities beat in a number of ways.
Many social forces created Rio’s favelas, but one of the biggest practical differences I noticed is that unlike American cities there are almost no rules. As The Nation piece above points out, if you want to build a house in a favela, you do. If your neighbor wants to open a shop, they hang a sign out the window and suddenly you’re buying bananas and groceries from them every other day. If your kid grows up and gets married, she might just build a new house on top of the old house.
One of the most fascinating examples of this process is the place I stayed, which is called the Maze Inn. The Maze is located a few hundred yards down a tiny alley and is run by a British expat named Bob. It has a few rooms, which have stunning views looking out over the city.
Bob literally built the Maze himself, and I’ve heard it described as exhibiting “Gaudi-esque” architecture. When we were there it was still evolving, as I’m sure it is today. I also suspect that Bob’s inn has helped drive improvements in the area by bringing in outside money.
Significantly, Bob doesn’t have to get building permits or any approval at all to build his business. He just does it.
Moreover, at one end of the alley on the way to to the Maze there are several home-based businesses. I’d wager that none are licensed. At another end of the alley was a community center and music venue. It didn’t have a permit and the fire marshall never showed up to check for overcrowding.
I don’t mean to minimize the problems of Rio’s favelas, which continue to be significant. Permits and licenses also serve useful purposes.
Still, Bob’s neighborhood is magical. It’s a place filled with artists, music, and old men playing cards on street corners. I was awoken everyday by a neighbor’s rooster and went to sleep at night to the sounds of kids kicking soccer balls on cobblestone. I’ve tried to think of something I could compare it to and the only thing that comes to mind is my impression of Paris in the early 20th Century.
By contrast, in my city I’m required to have a six-car driveway — an absurd and ethically insupportable piece of concrete — so I can rent out my basement to one young married couple. In my city, a local guy can’t afford the required bureaucracy to turn a historic building into housing. In my city, I just got a post card about a public hearing to decide if a craft store could open in a previously vacant historic home.
In short, virtually every idea goes through a wringer of paralyzing laws, permits, licenses and inspections before it becomes reality. In that light, it’s no wonder we have such few truly remarkable spaces: we make them illegal with volumes upon volumes of well-intentioned laws.
Despite what it may sound like, I’m not a small government libertarian. I think laws are important and government has an important job to do. I also realize there are logical justifications for every single rule on the book. And I’m sure Provo has a higher life expectancy than Rio’s favelas, among other things, so that’s something we should preserve.
But there’s an important lesson here: when Rio’s favelas work — which isn’t always or, historically, even often — they’re better than many places in America. As a result, we need to figure out a way to take some of these ideas and make them work for us before our “first world problems” destroy us.